Programming note: Watch Jimmie Ward's introductory press conference today at 2 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and STREAMING LIVE right here
Last month at the Northern Illinois spring football game, Jimmie Ward attended as a spectator. He wore an NIU Huskies hoodie with a 49ers hat.
Defensive coordinator Jay Niemann asked Ward, “Do you know something I don’t know?”
“And he said, ‘I just like this hat,’” Niemann said on Friday morning, about 12 hours after the 49ers selected Ward, a safety and nickel cornerback, with the No. 30 overall pick of the first round.
Ward was converted to safety after the first four games of his sophomore season. Then, Niemann continued to entrust Ward with greater responsibilities throughout his junior and senior years.
“Virtually everything a safety could do, he did,” Niemann told CSNBayArea.com. “He played deep zone. He played underneath zones. He played as the eighth defender in the box. He played slot receivers man to man. He blitzed from the nickel position. There’s nothing I can think of that you can do with a guy that we didn’t do with him.”
Ward led Northern Illinois in tackles while also ranking seventh in college football with seven interceptions.
“The reason he ended up doing so many different things for us is because we recognized his talents and wanted to maximize his opportunities to make plays and be productive,” Niemann said. “He was intelligent enough to handle all that and athletic enough and had the varied skillsets to be able to do it all.”
As a freshman in 2010, Ward was NIU’s Special Teams Player of the Year. He figures to carve out a role on special teams early in his 49ers career, as well as beat out Perrish Cox and Eric Wright for the responsibility of covering the opposition’s slot receiver.
“He’s a talented guy and shown the ability to do that against everybody we matched up against in college football,” Niemann said. “He really has corner-type qualities and skillsets but he plays with enough aggressiveness and toughness so that he can tackle and play safety. That’s what makes him the versatile player that he is.”
Ward (5-foot-11, 193 pounds) will be asked to get in the weight room and add some bulk, 49ers general manager Trent Baalke said.
“Don’t mistake the size for lack of toughness,” Baalke said. “That’s not the case. He’s energetic. He’s got a short memory and (he’s a) highly competitive young man who beat the odds his whole career.”
Said Niemann, “Jimmie is a big-time competitor. As I told various scouts and coaches who have been asking about him through the process, I think the hotter the fire, the better he plays. He loves competition. He loves being in that arena. It seems like the more intense the situation, the better he plays.”
Ward showcased tremendous instincts to make plays, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. And Baalke raved about Ward’s game-to-game consistency throughout his career.
Niemann said he expects Ward to place a lot more emphasis on the classroom aspect of football -- to go along with his instincts -- now that he can concentrate solely on his craft.
“I think that’s going to be an area where he’s going to have to change and evolve a little bit because now that’s his livelihood,” Niemann said. “He doesn’t have to go to class any more and do some of the things that college students do.
“He was talented enough in our league and on our team that oftentimes players can just go through the process and not do the little extra things you have to do to be successful in the NFL. I’m sure that’s true of everybody who transitions from college to professional football. That’ll be an area of change for him.”